WASHINGTON — The last time a trove of leaked documents exposed U.S. spying operations around the world, the reaction from allied governments was swift and severe.
In Berlin, thousands of people protested in the streets, the C.I.A. station chief was expelled, and the German chancellor told the American president that “spying on friends is not acceptable.” In Paris, the American ambassador was summoned for a dressing-down. Brazil’s president angrily canceled a state visit to Washington.
That was a decade ago, after an enormous leak of classified documents detailing American surveillance programs by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who handed them off to the website WikiLeaks for publication in what he called a public service to expose government overreach.
The latest leak of classified documents that appeared online this year, the motive behind which remains unknown, has again illustrated the broad reach of U.S. spy agencies, including into the capitals of friendly countries such as Egypt, South Korea, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.
Though the documents mainly focus on the war in Ukraine, they include C.I.A. intelligence briefs describing conversations and plans at senior levels of government in those countries, in several cases attributed to “signals intelligence,” or electronic eavesdropping. They have served to remind the world of America’s talent for spying — and the diplomatic blowups and reputational damage stemming from the leaks.
The United States’ adversaries have sought to exploit the awkward moment. It was only months ago that U.S. officials were condemning Beijing for its prying eyes, in the form of spy balloons drifting over multiple continents. On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman turned the tables, insisting that the United States owed the international community an explanation for its “indiscriminate secret theft, surveillance and eavesdropping on countries in the world, including its allies.”
Unlike in 2013, however, U.S. allies appear to be mostly shrugging off the latest examples of apparent spying.
The governments of Egypt, Israel, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates called leaked reports about their deliberations false or fabricated but said little or nothing about the surveillance itself. (U.S. officials have not disputed the overall authenticity of the documents, though they have warned without offering specifics that some of the contents may have been altered since appearing online.)
The subdued response may be the product of a jaded view about the long reach of U.S. spy agencies. The end of the Cold War may have brought a golden era of espionage to a close, but the documents that Mr. Snowden leaked in 2013 revealed that a new age of spying had begun after September 2001. It became clear that the United States, driven by fears of foreign terrorism and empowered by technological advances, had created a sophisticated network of global surveillance that was scooping up vast amounts of data from millions of emails and phone calls around the world.
It was shocking to many at the time. Less so today.
“I would expect the reaction to this latest leak to be far more muted than the reaction to the Snowden disclosures,” said Charles Kupchan, who became the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Europe less than a year after those leaks.
“Snowden let the cat out of the bag” by revealing the full extent of American surveillance worldwide, Mr. Kupchan said. “To some extent, the fact that the U.S. is spying on allies is old news,” he added.
That may be a relief for President Biden. President Barack Obama, under whom Mr. Kupchan served, found himself working the phones to clean up damage from the revelations of surveillance of allies.
Perhaps most explosive was the disclosure that the N.S.A. had directly targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, which led her to tell Mr. Obama, as she later recounted, that “spying on friends is not acceptable.” Political rivals criticized Ms. Merkel for allowing the United States to trample on Germany’s sovereignty, and German public opinion toward the country soured.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the damage during a meeting in February 2015 with the German leader, telling reporters as they sat together in the Oval Office that there was “no doubt that the Snowden revelations damaged impressions of Germans with respect to the U.S. government and our intelligence cooperation.”
Perhaps most explosive from the Snowden leak was the disclosure that the National Security Agency had directly targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Brazilian politics was similarly inflamed when the Snowden documents revealed that the N.S.A. had been monitoring the emails and phone calls of President Dilma Rousseff. A personal appeal from Mr. Obama in a 20-minute phone call was not enough to prevent a furious Ms. Rousseff from canceling a state visit to Washington planned for the next month. Soon after, she castigated the United States in remarks at the United Nations for “an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations.”
Mr. Obama appealed to France, first after a 2013 revelation that the N.S.A. had surveilled its citizens and business and political leaders, and again after the disclosure that Washington had spied on not one but three recent French presidents. Mr. Obama phoned President François Hollande to assure him that the practice had ended.
Polling by the Pew Research Center later found that those disclosures had harmed the United States’ public image, but not gravely. A Pew survey of 44 countries found widespread opposition to U.S. covert surveillance, with more than 73 percent of respondents saying they opposed spying on their leaders. The survey also showed Mr. Obama’s approval ratings had plunged in Germany and Brazil. But global opinion about the United States remained positive overall.
It is too early to say how public opinion might be affected by the classified documents that were recently discovered online, but there are few indications of a major backlash. Benjamin Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said he expected little outcry.
One key reason, he said, was that the documents leaked by Mr. Snowden revealed not only spying on world leaders but also mass surveillance of populations, angering people who felt that their everyday privacy might have been violated.
“That created more of a political problem for the leaders,” Mr. Rhodes said. “There was some performative outrage, in part because it was about the emails of” their people.
There had also been “a normalization of these leaks,” he said, citing not only the N.S.A. files Mr. Snowden released but also a huge trove of State Department diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst.
“By this point, I just can’t imagine that anybody could credibly be shocked to learn that the U.S. is interested in decision-making in these countries,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Some purported examples of that decision-making include Egypt’s plans to secretly supply Russia with munitions to use in Ukraine, a deepening of ties between the Emirati and Russian intelligence services, deliberations about war strategy in Ukraine, and support for antigovernment protests from officials in Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. (The Washington Post reported on the intelligence about Egypt, and The Associated Press reported on the United Arab Emirates based on documents they exclusively obtained. Both governments have denied the allegations.)
So far, the only evident political fallout from the latest leaks has occurred in South Korea, where one classified U.S. document described a debate among senior national security officials about whether to send artillery shells abroad that might wind up in Ukraine, potentially angering Russia. Opposition leaders in South Korea have denounced the United States for breaching trust with an ally and “violating the sovereignty” of the country.
But that might be mostly a matter of domestic political grandstanding, said Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, as South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party works to undermine the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Mr. Yoon, keen on a close alliance with the United States, has little interest in a diplomatic row with Mr. Biden. And South Koreans may be tolerant of the eavesdropping given their highly favorable attitudes toward the United States, in part because they see Washington as an important guardian against China’s growing power.
“I don’t think it’s anywhere near the sort of reaction that we got with WikiLeaks,” Mr. Yeo said. “I don’t think it’s going to damage the alliance in the long term.”
He added, “It’s more of an embarrassment that the U.S. is still having to spy on its friends.”
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